On a temperate December morning near the forks of Peno Creek in the Powder River Country of Wyoming — nearly 150 years ago — a young man “with the mannerisms of a woman,” known to the Lakota as a winkte, rode forward toward enemy lines on a sorrel horse, black hood on his head, armed with a whistle made of eagle bone. The young winkte, whose name history didn’t record, had been dispatched by military commanders among the “hostiles” — a pan-tribal coalition of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho adamant on shutting down incursions into the Powder basin via the Bozeman Trail.
His mission was esoteric. Like the many of the white soldiers they fought, the indigenous warriors amassed near the forks of Peno Creek that morning viewed warfare through a metaphysical lens. The winkte, short for the Lakota winyanktehca, commonly translated as ‘two-souled person,’ were seen as wakan — sacred or divine. The winkte who rode that morning was dispatched as a seer. In Lakota novelist Joseph M. Marshall III’s novelization of the battle, Hundred in the Hand, the real-life Oglala medicine man, High Eagle, learns of a young dreamer among the Miniconjou and enlists him. Whether he was discovered by High Eagle or not, numerous historic accounts establish that a winkte was deployed that morning as a clairvoyant, and that the visions he brought back with him would determine the steps taken by the military commanders, setting in motion what became known as the Fetterman Fight, alternatively the Fetterman Massacre, or the Battle of the Hundred in Hand.
Over a century before the Stonewall Riots, long before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or its repeal, or the bathroom wars in South Dakota and North Carolina, an historically anonymous winyanktehca rode out four times on his sorrel mare, to divine the day’s events, until he returned with a vision of a decisive victory for his side. If history had recorded his name, would we elevate his to the stature of a Mark Bingham — the gay man whose fatal stand on United Airlines Flight 93 helped pull out a tragic win for liberal democracy? Though their missions were different, both men were fighting for a broader culture where they had — if not total equality — a place within society, against a culture in which they would have none.
The Fetterman Fight marks a midway point in an accelerating arc of disinheritance for the Native people of the Plains. The Great Plains historian Mari Sandoz would describe the less than a quarter century between the Grattan Fight of 1854 and the final confinement of the last holdouts on reservations in 1877 as an “exploit of modern man… unrivaled in modern history: the destruction of a whole way of life and the expropriation of a race from a region of 350,000,000 acres in so short a time.”
Many of the Native players in the Fetterman Fight, from famous chiefs to unnamed warriors, women and children, would have to be confined, nullified or outright eliminated before this unrivaled expropriation could be achieved. Eleven years later, Crazy Horse — not yet known to the whites, but already a slippery decoy that day — would die from a stab wound inflicted on him when he refused to walk quietly into a jail cell at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Twelve years after the Cheyenne chief Dull Knife (Morning Star) pleaded with Carrington for peace (rebuffed, he took part in the battle) he would lead his band on a desperate escape from the starvation camps of the Oklahoma Indian Territory. The Army would hunt them down, killing women and children, till the last survivors, including Dull Knife, surrendered. American Horse — who later told Nebraska rancher James Cook that it was his knife that dispatched William Fetterman — would die in 1876 from a gunshot wound to the abdomen at the Battle of Slim Buttes.
On December 21, 1866, it was still possible to imagine a different future.
RED CLOUD'S WAR
The events that day were the culmination of a fight between US Army and Native forces that would become known as Red Cloud’s War. The 1863 discovery of gold in southeastern Montana brought with it the inevitable rush of migrants, and the Bozeman Trail was soon blazed from Fort Laramie through the Big Horn Mountains and beyond. This intrusion into the Plains tribes’ shrinking hunting grounds was intolerable to Red Cloud and the other chiefs, who resolved to fight it through a systematic campaign of harassment and low-intensity warfare against soldiers and civilians.
In response, The US Army dispatched Colonel Henry B. Carrington and two battalions of the Eighteenth Infantry Regiment to guard the Trail. In May of 1866, General William Sherman himself visited Fort Phil Kearny and gave Carrington’s mission his blessing. By summer, the Colonel had established three posts along the trail, built with logs cut from a pinery near Fort Kearny. This provocation was in turn met with an intensified campaign of harassment and an in-migration of reinforcements by indigenous forces. “By the middle of December,” writes, historian Shannon Smith Calitri, “the ‘pleasant’ service envisioned by Sherman had turned into a conflict in which nearly seventy soldiers and civilians had been killed in over fifty skirmishes, many within view of the post.”
Woodcutters at the pinery or delivering logs cut for construction to the forts along the trail were easy prey for “hostiles.” The pineries along Piney Creek would soon become a battlefield.
“By early autumn into December,” Dee Brown wrote in Fort Phil Kearny, “Red Cloud and other hostile chiefs had been assembling recruits along the headwaters of the Tongue, not more than fifty miles north of Fort Phil Kearny. Visiting Crows, who had been welcomed in the lodges and invited to join the hostiles, reported tepees spread out over a stretch of forty miles, and the number of warriors gathered there in mid-December probably totaled almost four thousand.”
On December 6, a detachment of hostiles attacked a wood train about four miles west of Fort Kearny. Colonel Carrington sent Captain William J. Fetterman along with a mounted infantry squad and Lieutenant Horatio Bingham’s cavalry company straight west to aid the beleaguered wood train and force the attackers into retreat across Piney Creek, while he attempted to lead an attack from Lodge Trail Ridge on the retreating Indians. What happened instead was that Bingham and several men got ahead of the others, chasing decoys beyond a bend in the Trail. By the time they were found, Bingham and two others were dead. “The pattern for disaster on December 21,” wrote Brown, “was laid on that afternoon of December 6.”
In the third week of December, detachments of Miniconjou led by Black Shield, Oglala led by Crazy Horse, as well as Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors made camp ten miles northwest of Fort Kearny and set plans in place to build on the successful use of decoys on December 6 and pull off an ambush at the forks of Peno Creek.
On December 19, the hostiles attacked the wood train again, but Carrington ordered Captain James Powell not to pursue the Indians across Lodge Trail Ridge. Carrington had learned his lesson, for now. If Red Cloud and the assembled forces were to pull off their planned ambush, they might need some celestial interference.
The concept of the winkte, and their status as wakan, was not exclusive to the Lakota. George Bird Grinnell, the conservationist who helped save the buffalo from extinction, wrote in his The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways “of a little group of men called Hēē măn ĕh’, ‘halfmen-halfwomen.’” (In Grinnell's account of the Battle of the Hundred in Hand, he refers to the seer as Hēē măn ĕh’).
“They were men, but had taken up the ways of women; even their voices sounded between the voice of a man and that of a woman.”
“They were very popular and especial favorites of young people, whether married or not, for they were noted matchmakers. They were fine love talkers. If a man wanted to get a girl to run away with him and could get one of these people to help him, he seldom failed. When a young man wanted to send gifts for a young woman, one of these halfmen-halfwomen was sent to the girl’s relatives to do the talking in making the marriage.”
According to Grinnell, the Hēē măn ĕh’ played a specific, genderized role in warfare.
“When a war-party was preparing to start out, one of these persons was often asked to accompany it, and, in fact, in old times large war-parties rarely started without one or two of them. They were good company and fine talkers. When they went with war-parties they were well treated. They watched all that was being done, and in the fighting cared for the wounded, in which they were skillful, for they were doctors or medicine men.”
Beyond the Lakota winkte and Cheyenne hemaneh, alternate gender indigenous people have been known as berdache, nádleehí (Navajo), and other names. The sometimes-controversial term berdache was the first seized on by early Euro-American gay rights activists and theorists who saw a kinship between their own suppressed sexualities and those of indigenous groups.
The term berdache was coined by French colonists who encountered cross-dressing people among the Athapaskans. The first Western anthropological account of a berdache class among indigenous North Americans may have been by the French Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau in his 1724 Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains. “Among the Illinois, among the Sioux, in Louisiana, in Florida, and in the Yucatan,” wrote Lafitau, “there are found youths who adopt the garb of women and preserve it all their lives, and who think themselves honored in stooping to all their occupations; they never marry; they take part in all ceremonies in which religion seems to be concerned; and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to pass for beings of a superior order.”
In his The Intermediate Type as Prophet or Priest (1931), anthropologist Edward Carpenter drew a parallel between Lafitau’s observations of the berdache and the existence of an ancient class of androgynous Scythian shamans known as Enarees, who Herodotus described as “endowed by Venus with the power of divination.”
Gay rights pioneer and Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay focused on the berdache in his influential 1955 paper “The Homophile in History,” to demonstrate that gay people had fulfilled prescribed roles throughout history. “Harry believed that, especially in ancient times, some homosexuals were devoted to specific roles by the community at large,” Stuart Timmons wrote in The Trouble With Harry Hay. “Harry attempted to make a historical materialist study of the emergence and development of gay roles. He saw for example, that these men who did women’s work were the first craft-specialists.”
This characterization of the berdache as a class of craft-specialists devoted to “women’s work” is consistent with anthropological accounts of the winkte. Anthropologist Royal Hassrick described the winkte as “dressed as women, and following the feminine pursuits of tanning and quilling,” in his 1964 The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society..
By the seventies, Harry Hay’s demonstration of the berdache as one manifestation of a global “homophile” history stretching back to ancient times was embraced by elements within the American gay community. In the pages of RFD, a reader-written journal for rural gay men, “contributors cited texts, oral narratives and intuition as evidence tracing gay nature to an Indigenous spiritual root,” according Scott L. Morgensen, in his Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization.
Non-Native fascination with the berdache increased with the 1991 publication of The Zuni Man-Woman, Will Roscoe’s biography of We'wha,’ a Zuni who lived as a dual-gendered person in the mid to late 19th century.
Not every anthropological study is in agreement about the role of the winkte in Lakota society. Royal Hassrick described “an ambivalent attitude [toward the winkte] on the part of the Sioux.”.
“The winkte,” he wrote, “was held in awesome respect on the one hand and in disdainful fear on the other.”
Hassrick’s views of the winkte were undoubtedly shaped by his own culture and time. He suggested that winkte individuals “were victims either of actual biological homosexuality or of parental overprotection,” arguing that a warrior culture would inevitably need to create a kind of draft deferment for young males physically or mentally unfit for combat: “There can be little question that the Sioux had their mama’s boys; the system was a natural for producing them.”
In their more sympathetic 1997 essay, Gender Selection in Two American Indian Tribes, Little Crow, Judy Wright and Lester Brown present two dramatically different traditional socialization schemes for a winkte individual among the Lakota and Santee Dakota: as an essential member of the tribe (Lakota), or conversely as an outcast who “must experience total exile form his immediate tribe, and was abandoned to find acceptance and tolerance among others” (Santee Dakota).
If it was the case that some Dakota people, self- or otherwise identified as winkte were exiled into parallel communities, the Dakota were not — and aren’t today — monolithic in that approach.
CONTEMPORARY WINKTE & TWO-SPIRIT VOICES
Doyle Robertson (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) identifies as a “modern-day winkte” who learned from his uncle to accept his identity at a young age: “He stayed right in our home and cooked, cleaned, disciplined, and taught us so my mom could rest and spend quality time with the new infant. He stayed as long as he was needed or until he was needed somewhere else. It was one of his definitions of the winkte tradition acted out in his place and time.”
In his 1997 essay, I Ask You to Listen to Who I Am, he described his role as his community “pizza man” in Onamia, Minnesota, a role he described as “an adaptation of the winkte tradition.”
“The stories of the Dakota tell of how one of the winkte’s roles was to feed the people. My uncle fulfills that role in his way by cooking the community meals for the annual wacipi and bringing soup to the shut-in elderly on the reservation at Sisseton. Those are manifestations of the winkte role in appropriate places and times. I live in a non-reservation, predominantly Caucasian community and still feed the people, but I receive payment for the work that I do in my place and time. I am proud to be ‘the pizza man’ when I see the goodwill that has been cultivated in my community because of the work I do.”
After 30 years as “the pizza man,” Doyle Robertson sold the shop a few months ago. “After all of this time,” Robertson says now, “I started with death threats 31 years ago, and I’ve ended it with them. And it wasn’t the death threats so much that bothered me but the response of those institutions that were put in place to help me, which was nil to none. And I just don’t get stuff like that, after contributing that long in a community.”
“I thought I was creating change,” he says. “I made choices that I think after all this time may not have been correct. I’ve realized that the contribution I was trying to make to the community was one that’s kind of in vain.”
On the other hand: “It’s a gift. I’ve completed a novel — a historical novel on my family history. And I’ve turned all this anger and bitterness into a real positive thing.”
What does being winkte mean to Doyle Robertson today?
“Living my life. It’s a label that the culture that surrounded that person at the time put on them. It no longer exists. It’s living my life. I think one of the issues that I have always been concerned about is the special status that has been created for winkte people. I understand where it comes from when Native gays have a pretty rough time of it, and come out of alcoholism, and need to have something to hold on to, but I’ve always believed that we’re just part of the whole.”
Would the winkte seer who foretold the hundred soldiers in hand have perceived of himself in modern terms like “gay” or “trans”? It may be impossible to understand how a 19th century person’s perception of self and of their role in society would translate in the modern era. Over the course of centuries, anthropologists, historians and activists have foisted explanations — driven by conflicting social agendas — on to the winkte’s existence. The voices of the winkte themselves barely exist in the historic record.
Maybe the best we can do is ask people who identify as winkte, like Doyle Robertson, or two-spirit like Alfred Walking Bull (Sicangu Lakota) — Communications Manager at the PFund Foundation, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) advocacy group based in the Twin Cities — and not expect any easy answers.
“In most tribal communities, LGBTQ people, however they are identified, generally had a place in society,” says Walking Bull. “For Lakota people, that place was neither more elevated nor less than anyone else.”
“Spiritually speaking, winkte people and LGBTQ people were seen as different. We still had a role in our society and for some of us that meant there were specific roles and responsibilities that we had. Lakota people were very holistic as it stands. We traditionally didn’t go to church, we didn’t set one day a week aside for worship. Every morning was a time to have prayer. Life was a spiritual life. It was engrained into everything we did.”
“Traditionally, because winkte were so different from heteronormative culture, we occupied two worlds basically. The spiritual aspect of that is this is something special. This is something unique. Winkte people are here to kind of open our eyes to the possibility of looking at things from a different perspective. Another aspect was that when we talk about roles and responsibilities within the culture — for Lakota people — winkte people were generally assigned a certain kind of spiritual significance. They were encouraged to explore that, to receive their vision and more often than not that meant, yes, they were supposed to be medicine people, they were supposed to be people in the middle who resolved conflict or who tried to foster any kind of understanding.”
Can we assign modern terms like “gay” or “trans” to winkte people?
“It’s possible,” says Walking Bull. “It just wouldn’t necessarily be as accurate. Because in Western culture, we like to put people into boxes. One of the things that we’re learning is that identity in terms of gender and sexuality are on a spectrum. And we’re slowing trying to push most of American society to live in the world we live in.
“It’s a very interesting question, because we are at these different turning points in the LGBTQ movement. So when we talk about winkte, it’s a very holistic, very fluid identity, which I think American society is slowly starting to understand about LGBTQ society. So it’s very interesting, because we talk about this all the time, particularly with the bathroom bills that are going through state houses all over the country. There’s a noticeable cultural shift.
“And what we’re seeing now is that people who thought in terms of black and white, people who go through the extremes are realizing that most people in the LGBTQ community are anywhere in between. Whether that’s strictly masculine male, strictly feminine female, strictly heterosexual straight, or strictly lesbian and gay, most people are in the middle there somewhere. So it’s very interesting, in my perspective, having grown up in my culture, to watch this happen and look back and say we kind of knew that already, but it’s good you all are coming to the same realization.”
During the Indian Wars, the typical propaganda response to a military catastrophe was to find a scapegoat. William Fetterman was the obvious patsy for the Massacre that bears his name. History assigned him the hubristic line: “With eighty men I could ride through the entire Sioux nation.” Revisionists have demolished that myth as a scheme cooked up by Colonel Carrington’s wife Margaret and others to clear him of responsibility for the disaster, but the line followed him to the grave.
There are different explanations for what happened. Native forces had been stealing Army horses for months, forcing Fetterman to lead his troops on foot. His troops were under-trained. The post-Civil War Army was understaffed. These are probably better reasons for understanding why Fetterman fell so hopelessly entrapped that not one of his 82 men, including Fetterman, escaped alive.
Another would be that Carrington was simply out-classed and out-maneuvered by the Indigenous commanders in sector. Or that the trademark near-suicidal baiting runs that would make Crazy Horse the most feared Indian alive were just too much for any self-respecting officer to resist. Whether or not Carrington truly ordered Fetterman not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge (as the official versions have long stated, but Calitri has disputed), he did, leading his men into an ambush of two thousand Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors: “the men on foot facing a thousand warriors,” wrote Dee Brown, “so close it was possible to see the color of the war paint and the metal ornaments and brass studs of their shields.”
There were too many legendary fighters on the field that day to assign all the credit for the route to one warrior. The same ambush had been tried a couple days prior, and nobody bit. There are many factors that shouldn’t be discounted. Not the least of these are the words spoken by a winkte seer who rode out on a sorrel mare with an eagle bone in hand, black hood over his head, searching the darkness for a sign. The stories say he returned from his first run and told the chiefs, “I have ten men, five in each hand. Do you want them?” The chiefs were unimpressed. He went back out a second and a third time. “On the fourth return,” wrote Grinnell, “he rode up fast and as his horse stopped, he fell off and both hands struck the ground. 'Answer me quickly,’ he said, I have a hundred or more.’”
As Alfred Walking Bull says: “Life was a spiritual life. It was engrained into everything we did.” An optimistic vision by the seer must have been good medicine, esprit de corps for the troops.
The warriors would vindicate his vision, and win a decisive battle in Red Cloud’s successful campaign of harassment — a campaign that would culminate with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, winning a temporary reprieve from the assault on Native lands from the Black Hills to the Powder River country. The winkte seer had helped buy some time for his culture, and his own place within it.
Since we don’t know his name, we can’t know if he survived the next tumultuous ten years, as the great buffalo herds disappeared and the free people of the Plains were forced onto reservations. We know the role he played within his culture still lives through people like Alfred Walking Bull and Doyle Robertson. And that the roles that he and other indigenous winkte or two-spirit people played in their cultures helped inspire a cross-cultural movement that seems to have momentum. Even if he fell on the battlefield like Mark Bingham, his victory that day could be seen as a portent, like the hundred men he held in his hands.